Humans and the aesthetic

I’ve been watching bonsai videos lately. I don’t know why. There’s something about taking a straggly adolescent tree, shredding it to its core and produce something humans would find beautiful. There’s the time aspect too, the fact that once you strip some seedling down to its naked trunk, chop its arms and head off, bend it sideways and command it to “sit and stay!” that you have to wait years while the pathetic Charlie Brown’s bonsai either handles the trauma and flourishes — or dies.

And I got to thinking, a dog wouldn’t give this tree a second thought, that is, right after it pissed all over it. Nor would a robin, or a gecko, antelope or a mountain lion. Too small to provide shade, too nasty to eat, maybe there’s some bugs to be found crawling through its diminutive branches… But other than that, meh, just another woody green thing to be ignored.

We humans seem singularly adapted to layer an aesthetic sense of beauty, or the lack there of, over top of everything we experience in the world. The most mundane items of everyday life may be imbued with the qualities of feng shui, chi/qi, or wabi-sabi evoking the true essence of their purpose — or not. There’s some ugly shit in the world.

I’m reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comment that, of the billions of species that have existed since the rise of complex life 500+ millions years ago, higher intelligence evolved just once as an extended species (Homo). “I guess higher intelligence must not be all that important for survival.” Sharks and crocodiles would agree.

And with this “higher intelligence” it would appear we got the added bonus of arbitrarily assigning an aesthetic quality to anything within our environment. I look at these bonsai trees (bonsai literally means “planted in a pot”) and I can immediately distinguish which exude elegance and charm and which are gnarled witch-sticks leaning toward the fire. And I’m convinced my dog couldn’t care less.

But then, maybe she does care… Care about other things. “Oh my, what a wonderful smell that is, wafting in through the open car window.” Or the corvid perched on the rooftop, “That’s one clean, white ground roller there. I think it needs a bit of aerial deposited decoration.” What of a dolphin’s delight in the curve of the surf, or the standing pulse of a bow-wave? How about the sweetness of a strawberry or banana for a chimpanzee?

Perhaps our delight or disgust of that which we experience, and how they influence our behavior is not ours alone.

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink then you’ll recall how our subconscious, our first 1/2 a second of experience can instruct us in our aesthetic judgement. It’s a thing we cannot stop. We instantly “know”. But I ask myself, why should my interpretation of the world and my personal opinion of its beauty or ugliness have meaning beyond my own mind, beyond my own life?

My dog rolled in something again. Damn, that’s some skanky shit.

“You’re joking, right?” she whines, “That was the best smellin’ dead-thing I’ve found in many moons.”


10 thoughts on “Humans and the aesthetic

  1. All of it (us, etc) is vibration. In a split second we can choose to experience a major 7th or an aug4 and find pleasure or pain in either. Much the same as recoiling from a stanky dog or embracing a furry being who is glad to see you and willing to share their moment of glory free of charge. Beauty is a moving target.

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    1. They do look sad. There are fruit tree bonsai too… But buying one? You need to grow your own. Herons Bonsai on youtube — they guy has a video where he walks through his yard, yanking seedlings and potting them. “Here, you see, we have a tiny little holly seedling. I’ve wired it to have that classic “S” shape, and in a few years you will have a perfect little bonsai.”

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  2. Hi A. Mole,

    You are getting a heuristics with this post. You have no idea how long it took me to learn and remember the term. Which is kind of ironic given the definition. You would think of all words, heuristics would jump into your conciseness like a cobra strike. Anyway, the whole beauty thing of the real world is one I have often thought about. I wrote somewhere that Vogue should do a photo shoot in a refugee camp befallen with famine or plague. I wonder what would come of it other than millions of people saying Vogue was a piece of shit. But I have to tell you some of the most poignant and beautiful sights I have ever seen were in such places. It is, however, beyond the normal definitions of beauty, it takes on an existential feeling that has a lot to do with the fragility of life and the difficulty to process death. Taken together they compose the only compound of our existence that really matters. Here is a stanza from Wilford Owen, who didn’t make it.

    Red lips are not so red
    As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
    Kindness of wooed and wooer
    Seems shame to their love pure.
    O Love, your eyes lose lure
    When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

    This is what I mean. Beauty found in the English dead. How could it be? Where does that come from? Who are we upon this ground? I don’t know. I think about it a lot, but I really have a hard time. Thanks. Duke

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